What Are Plant Sterols?

How do plant sterols help your heart?

What Are Plant Sterols?

Plant sterols are similar to animal sterols, which we know as cholesterol. However, plant sterols differ from cholesterol in two primary ways:

  1. You can only get plant sterols through diet while our bodies make cholesterol in the liver. This makes sense as cholesterol is animal sterol and we are animals, not plants!
  2. Too much cholesterol leads to fatty build up in our arteries. This fatty build up, or plaque, leads to heart disease. Plant sterols are perfectly benign, and do not result in fatty build up.

In a nutshell, the process works like this: Our bodies make some cholesterol and we eat more cholesterol (from animal foods). The cells in our body (think of them as little taxis) pick this cholesterol up and start traveling. If there is too much cholesterol, we “store” it in our arteries, which turns out to be a pretty bad storage area.

However, those cholesterol taxis aren’t all that particular. They are just as happy to pick up plant sterols instead of cholesterol. Plant sterols however refuse to be let off in the artery storage area, and insist on being returned to the liver or intestines where they are eliminated.

This explanation is extremely simplified, but the end result is; plant sterols good, cholesterol, not as much.

What Are The Benefits Of Plant Sterols?

According to several studies, plant sterols in the diet can reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed into the bloodstream (picked up by the taxi) by 50%. Eating plant sterols also reduces LDL, or the “bad” cholesterol by an average of 10%, and in conjunction with statins, will lower LDL levels by up to 15%. Other studies have shown that plant sterols cut inflammation, which exacerbates all kinds of illness from arthritis, to migraines, to heart disease, and have an anti-cancer effect.

My personal experience is that plant sterols work to reduce my cholesterol level even better than any statin (and I have tried them all) has ever worked for me. Although I would never advise giving up medication without your doctor’s approval, adding sterols might boost your statin’s effect.

What Foods Are Good Sources Of Plant Sterols?

The good news – plant sterols are present in almost all fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and other plants. The bad news is that for any positive effect, we need about 2 grams of plant sterols each day. Foods have so little plant sterols available, that there is no possible way to get 2 grams each day from food alone. For that amount, we need to either take supplements or eat plant sterol enriched foods.

Interestingly, some scientists theorize that our foods used to include many more plant sterols, in the days before large scale agriculture. This theory makes sense as we know that even today, the wild dandelion greens that grow in our backyards are much more nutritious than even the superfood spinach we purchase at the grocery store.

Another theory is that older diets were more protective because we ate many more plants and fewer inflammation causing foods like potato chips, processed sauces, frozen convenience foods and sugars.

Either way, one easy way to stay heart healthy is to increase the amount of plant sterols we ingest each day. Watch for my next post where I list the best sources of plant sterols and where to get them.

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About the Author

Renee Pottle, an author and heart-healthy educator, loves to explore and write about the Mediterranean Diet. She blogs at SeedToPantry.com and HestiasKitchen.com.

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